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Blane Klemek column: Beautiful bluebird a favorite of wildlife watchers

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I saw my first eastern bluebird, a singing male, the second week of March -- a little earlier than usual. The beautiful bird flew from one backyard perch to another, softly singing its sweet warbled song as he flew. Indeed, there's something very special about seeing a bluebird.

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A couple of weeks later, I saw my first female bluebird. This occurred after I had cleaned all 60-plus nest boxes I have installed at various locations in the countryside. Standing beside Assawa Lake, I looked up into the leafless canopy of a few green ash trees to watch a male bluebird courting a nearby female. He would sing, she would fly closer, he'd sing some more and fly closer to her, and on it went. Sometimes he'd crouch and flutter his wings like a fledgling would do to beg its parents for food.

Eastern bluebirds are relatively small songbirds at about five to seven inches in length. They are also cavity-nesting birds. In other words, bluebirds nest inside holes in trees that are most often the result of hard-working woodpeckers. Bluebirds simply do not have the wherewithal to chisel out their own tree holes, so the birds have to rely on woodpeckers for cavity construction.

Really, this is not that unusual for birds and other animals. Burrowing owls in the Great Plains utilize the excavations of burrowing mammals like prairie dogs for their nest sites. Great horned and long-eared owls seek out abandoned crow, magpie and hawk nests to use as their nests. For some reason, these and other owls never learned the art of nest building. Furthermore, and much to the delight of wildlife enthusiasts, bluebirds readily accept and use artificial nest boxes.

Bluebirds belong to the same family, Turdidae, of which robins and thrushes are members. Though not commonly observed on the ground like robins and thrushes, bluebirds are most often seen perching on fences or posts, or on conspicuous branches from where they watch for and ambush insects.

Like all members of the family, bluebirds feed primarily on insects, but will forage on berries if insects are scarce. This frequently occurs when migrating birds arrive at their northern breeding grounds and cold weather sets in. When this happens, insects are inactive and difficult to locate. Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that have kept their fruits through the winter then become a highly important food source.

Eastern bluebirds typically arrive to our region between late March and early April. Preferred habitats include orchards, meadows, farms, roadsides, golf courses, backyards, cemeteries and open woodlands. The male, bright blue with a rusty-red upper breast and white belly, sings from favored perches throughout his territory. Female bluebirds' plumage is somewhat less brilliant than that of male birds.

Soon after their arrival, breeding and nesting takes place, and both parents cooperate in raising their clutch of, usually, four or five nestlings. After an incubation period of just 12 to 14 days, fledging takes place about 20 days later. Second clutches are frequently raised, and sometimes the young of the first brood assist their parents in caring for the second brood.

Not that long ago, eastern bluebird populations were perilously low. Habitat loss has most affected bluebird distribution and abundance, but competition for nest sites from non-native species of birds like the house sparrow and European starling has also contributed to bluebird decline. But thanks to conservation-minded individuals, groups, and wildlife agencies like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and its Nongame Wildlife Program, bluebird populations are not nearly as troubled as they once were.

All across eastern bluebird range, which includes much of eastern United States, parts of the Great Plains to Texas, and southern portions of Canada, countless numbers of ambitious bluebird projects have been implemented to assist in the bluebird's recovery. Miles of "bluebird trails" with erected bluebird houses along their routes have been established.

One such trail, and aptly named the "Bluebird Trail," exists at the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley, southeast of Warren, Minn., for nesting bluebirds and wildlife enthusiasts alike. The trail was made possible through a grant from the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and its Bluebird Recovery Program. Moreover, thousands of private landowners and volunteers that build, install and monitor countless bluebird houses year in and year out have undoubtedly hastened the the bluebirds' recovery as well.

Few birds have received as much attention as the eastern bluebird. Two states have adopted the species as their state bird, including two other states that call the bird's western cousin, the mountain bluebird, their official state bird.

Bluebirds are also the focus of many organizations, societies and events that are devoted entirely to bluebird awareness and conservation.

For sure, the male eastern bluebird's sweet song and beautiful plumage, both sexes' parental devotion to their young, and their ready acceptance of artificial bluebird houses make them a favorite of wildlife watchers everywhere.

And as anyone will tell you, including yours truly, there's no question that catching sight of a bluebird is a special and rewarding moment as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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